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The unlucky sister: the fate of HMHS Britannic.

britannic 1

Everyone knows about the Titanic, one of the most famous shipwrecks in history. Fewer people know about her very unlucky sister ship, the Britannic, who also sank in a tragic disaster while in her prime. Although the death toll wasn’t at all comparable, in many ways the story of the Britannic is equally or even more tragic than that of her older sister. It happened 97 years ago today, on November 21, 1916.

J. Bruce Ismay, the White Star Line executive whose idea the Titanic was, envisioned three mighty sister ships so luxurious and inviting that they would rule the North Atlantic as floating palaces. In doing so Ismay and his company were conceding the prize of fastest North Atlantic liners to his rival Cunard, who had the Mauretania. White Star hoped to compete on accommodations. Olympic, who made her maiden voyage in 1911, was the first of the three. She had a long career that lasted into the 1930s. Titanic–well, we all know what happened to her. Britannic, the last and largest of the sisters, was still being completed when World War I broke out. The British government commissioned her as a hospital ship for wartime use, before she’d ever made a single North Atlantic voyage or carried a single paying passenger.

It was in this capacity that, on the morning of November 21, 1916, as she was headed for Lemnos, Greece to pick up British casualties from the Middle Eastern campaign, the ship struck a mine that was planted by a German U-boat. The crew, having been drilled in emergency procedures, swung into action like clockwork, immediately going to their posts and preparing to evacuate wounded patients. Unfortunately some of the watertight doors between the bulkheads were not closed or could not be closed, for reasons that remain unclear. As flooding increased the ship listed to the side. It was a very warm day on the Mediterranean and many portholes were open. When the ship began to heel over, water came in through the portholes. It took only two minutes for Britannic to flood as badly as Titanic had in an hour. Clearly the ship was doomed.

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Photographs of the Britannic are pretty rare. Here is one, taken about 1915, of the ship decked out in her hospital colors. The funnels would have been painted tan. “HMHS” stands for His Majesty’s Hospital Ship.

The crew lowered two lifeboats, but this turned out to be a mistake. Britannic‘s engines were still running. As soon as the lifeboats hit the water they were sucked into the churning propellers and cut to splinters. The captain finally gave the order to stop the engines. More lifeboats were launched successfully until the tilt of the ship made it impossible. When Britannic finally sank beneath the waves at 9:07 AM, only 55 minutes after the explosion, thirty people were dead. Tragic, but there were over 1,000 on board at the time of the explosion; the vast majority survived.

For one unfortunate British nurse, Violet Jessup, this was her second time around. She had also survived the sinking of the Titanic four years earlier. She was a pretty hardy woman, eventually living almost 60 years beyond both disasters.

The Britannic sank in 400 feet of water. In 1976 noted undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau explored the wreck, trying to answer the question of whether it was a torpedo or mine that sank her. Several other expeditions have been made to the wreckage, which is in surprisingly good shape. Today experts believe it was most likely a mine that did the damage. One diver died on the wreck in 2009–the Britannic‘s thirty-first victim.

Britannic will never be as famous as her tragic sister, but she’s definitely worth remembering. Incidentally, Britannic is a “character” in my 2005 novel about ocean liners, Romantic: Memoirs of a Great Liner.

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